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Heritage Minister Melanie Joly pose for a portrait along the Ottawa River April 19, 2016 in Gatineau, Quebec. (Dave Chan/For the Globe and Mail)
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly pose for a portrait along the Ottawa River April 19, 2016 in Gatineau, Quebec. (Dave Chan/For the Globe and Mail)

Mélanie Joly urges patience on long road toward cultural policy shakeup Add to ...

“I’ve always been an impatient person,” said Mélanie Joly, the charismatic Minister of Canadian Heritage. The 38-year-old entered politics at a gallop, forming her own municipal party and narrowly losing Montreal’s mayoralty race in 2013, before entering the federal cabinet as a rookie MP two years later.

But patience is the virtue Ms. Joly recommends to others, as she continues her long march towards a mandate-defining shakeup in cultural policy – due, she said this week in an interview, before the end of the year. While U.S. President Donald Trump is being judged on the achievements of his first 100 days, Ms. Joly says we should wait 700 to measure hers.

She came to Heritage saying that “everything is on the table,” and was given a treasure chest of $1.9-billion to distribute to the CBC, the Canada Council and myriad other agencies and arts organizations – the biggest reinvestment in the arts in 30 years. That money is going out the door, but Ms. Joly has remained mum about how she will handle the myriad policy challenges facing her ministry.

In Changer les Règles du Jeu, a manifesto-like book Ms. Joly published between her civic and parliamentary campaigns, she wrote that there needs to be a reset of government, which has become “elephantine” and detached. Her remedy since taking over the vast Heritage portfolio – which also includes national museums, the National Film Board and responsibility for official and Indigenous languages – has been to spend much of the past 20 months consulting with artists, entrepreneurs and other politicians about culture and cultural industries.

“Politicians are like bees going to flowers,” she said. “We cross-pollinate, and we need to go on every flower.”

The bee’s lengthy circuit through the meadow may be great for making honey, but as a metaphor, it also recalls a notorious habit of the unresponsive kind of governance Ms. Joly vowed to reset. In Ottawa, the apex of public pollen-gathering has traditionally been the royal commission, convened to present the appearance of consultation, to drag out policy making and sometimes to leave a difficult issue more or less unchanged.

The difference this time may be that Ms. Joly is doing much of the gathering herself, and is staking all her political capital on the result. She seems determined to improve conditions for Canada’s $55-billion cultural economy in the digital age, and to expand the reach of her ministry internationally. At a time when streaming content from Netflix takes up 35 per cent of total Canadian bandwidth at peak hours, she said, Heritage can no longer afford to have a merely national scope.

“She has a sense of strategy, which is important,” said David Silcox, a former deputy minister of culture in Ontario, and an assistant deputy ministry in the Department of Communications under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. “She’s a believer,” Mr. Silcox said. “She understands the importance of culture in our society.”

Since Heritage has no legislative power beyond Canada’s borders, Ms. Joly looks to build her case internationally on non-binding conventions such as UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. The convention has 140 signatories, though they don’t include the United States, whose rampant cultural production and ever-more potent means for distributing it pose the biggest challenge to claiming space for Canadian stories in the digi-sphere.

Ms. Joly travelled to California last week, where she found that her pitch for cultural diversity was “surprising” to executives she met from the powerful quartet known as FANG – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has distanced itself from the idea of legislating controls on these titans – a tough if not impossible prospect – though Ms. Joly said her approach is not all carrot.

“There’s always a stick,” she said. “And they know it.”

She’s hoping they’ll be brought around not just by appeals to corporate responsibility, but by self-interest. “This is about the future viability of their brands,” she said. “I think they have a very important social impact in the world, and they’re beginning to recognize that.”

As to whether Internet-service providers in Canada could or should be obliged to offer a friendly space for Canadian content, she deferred to a recent decision by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which ruled against “differential pricing” schemes that permit unmetered streaming of content your ISP wants you to see. The recent federal budget, however, pledged to “modernize” the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunication Act, which set the rules followed by the CRTC. The government is officially in favour of net neutrality – the principle that all online content be treated equally. But the same CRTC ruling found that, in theory, Cancon’s online presence “could be supported by differential pricing practices.”

Another big topic in California was the importance of trustworthy news, in the wake of Facebook’s admission that its news content has been manipulated by outside propagandists. An activist Heritage policy to deal with the crisis facing Canadian news media could also become part of Ms. Joly’s eventual policy bombshell. She said that the sector’s independence would have to be respected, and that “it’s difficult to develop a policy when the business model is ever-changing.”

Ms Joly refused to comment directly on a joint statement made last week by 51 leading Canadian film artists, who went public with their fear that Telefilm Canada is about to be merged with the Canada Media Fund, another Heritage agency with a more commercial agenda. “I value Telefilm very much,” she said. “I defended in cabinet the reinvestment of $25-million in Telefilm over five years.”

Ms. Joly told The Globe and Mail soon after she was sworn in that she considered it her duty to put Heritage business on the agendas of other ministers, and has claimed success for doing so in the official languages file, which is the biggest single line-item in her budget. In February, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould reinstated the Court Challenges program, which gives support to citizen’s complaints of rights infringement, including language rights.

One area in which Ms. Joly may be missing the urgency of the moment is Indigenous languages, which are losing fluent speakers almost by the day. The Prime Minister promised an Aboriginal Languages Act in December, but Ms. Joly says it will be done before the mandate runs out in 2019. In the mean time, Heritage is streaming $23.3-million in new money to its Aboriginal Languages Initiative, a program widely reviled by Indigenous language activists as opaque, inefficient and capricious. As for the alienation of many Indigenous people from the government and from Canada 150, Ms. Joly repeated the Liberal line, that “reconciliation is one of the pillars of the social contract.”

Before entering government, Ms. Joly was active with a number of cultural not-for-profits, and sat on the board of Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain. In spite of her jammed agenda as Heritage Minister, she said this week that she still visits artists in their studios, to keep in touch with the front lines of artistic creation. Like other federal ministers, she had her pick of loaned art works for her office, from the Canada Council’s Art Bank. Her choices included challenging works by Kent Monkman, Shary Boyle, Shuvinai Ashoona and Claude Tousignant.

“I love every day of my job,” Ms. Joly said. Her experience in government so far has only confirmed her belief that “in order for change to happen, you have to really push. You have to work with the system, but also challenge it.”

The longer the wait for her to declare her program for change, however, the greater the expectations. The pressure to get everything right can only grow, as Ms. Joly continues her long preparation for the biggest closeup of her short political career.

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